Since 2019 the Uniting Church has marked a Day of Mourning to reflect on the dispossession of Australia’s First Peoples and the ongoing injustices faced by First Nations people in this land. For those of us who are Second Peoples from many lands, we lament that we were and remain complicit.
The observance of a Day of Mourning on the Sunday before 26 January arises from a request from the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) which was endorsed by the 15th Assembly in 2018. Since then, many Congregations have held worship services that reflect on the effects of invasion, colonisation and racism on First Peoples. This year, that will take place on 22 January.
The Uniting Church acknowledges that our predecessors in the denominations which joined in 1977 to form the Uniting Church have been “complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land”. That itself is a cause for lament and mourning.
The Uniting Church also recognises that people in these churches “were largely silent as the dominant culture of Australia constructed and propagated a distorted version of history that denied this land was occupied, utilised, cultivated and harvested by these First Peoples who also had complex systems of trade and inter-relationships”.
Resources prepared for worship on 22 January 2023 include a statement by the Rev. Sharon Hollis, President of the UCA, and the Rev. Mark Kickett, the Interim National Chair Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. In this statement, they observe that “The Day of Mourning invites us to listen to the truth of the effects of colonisation and racism on First Peoples and to hope that in confronting this truth we will discover ways to create communities of justice and healing.”
They continue, “In marking the Day of Mourning, we live into our covenant relationship to stand together with, and listen to, the wisdom of First Nations people in their struggle for justice. We affirm the sovereignty of First Peoples and honour their culture and their connection to country.”
The covenant referred to by the President and the Interim Congress Chair was made by the National Assembly in 1994. It signals the Uniting Church’s commitment to stand with our First Nations brothers and sisters in Christ in their struggle for justice. The story of entering into this relationship with First Peoples and ongoing developments that have occurred since 1994 is told at https://uniting.church/covenanting/
The Uniting Church is firmly committed to Giving Voice, Telling Truth, Talking Treaty, which was the theme of the 2019 NAIDOC WEEK, picking up from the 2017 Statement from the Heart. This theme was the focus of a consensus decision of the 2019 meeting of the Synod of NSW and the ACT, to enact a series of proposals to give support to the theme of Giving Voice, Telling Truth, Talking Treaty; see
The 2023 worship resources invite worshippers to begin with an Acknowledgement of First Peoples which draws from the Revised Preamble, affirming that “God nurtured and sustained the First Peoples of this country, the Aboriginal and Islander peoples” and that “the Spirit was already in the land, revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony”. The Acknowledgement invites worshippers to respond by affirming that they “honour [First Peoples] for their custodianship of the land on which we gather today” and that they “rejoice the reconciling purposes of God found in the good news about Jesus Christ”.
These are fundamental theological affirmations which undergird both our present respect for First Peoples, and our understanding that a relationship with and an understanding of God are not limited to western Christian perceptions of the divine. Indeed, as we have accepted within Christianity that the God we know in Jesus was active in relationship with human beings for many centuries before the time of Jesus—through the covenant with the people of Israel—so we can agree that God was in relationship with the peoples of the continent we call Australia and the islands which surround it.
The worship resources include an Invitation to Truth-Telling—something that is now recognised as integral to the process of reconciliation that is essential within Australian society. In words written by Alison Overeem, Manager of Leprena—UAICC in Tasmania: “We are called to justice in the mourning, not just for today but all that weeps from today. All that sits in the layers of mourning, embedded in the trail of injustice … of removal … of dispossession … of stolen land … of stolen children … of stolen identity”. The Invitation continues by encouraging us, “in the mourning, let us look to the love that calls us to seek out and speak out against injustice”.
That truth-telling was at the heart of decisions at the 2015 Assembly, to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and at the 2018 Assembly, to recognise the sovereignty of the First Peoples. See
A Prayer of Lament in the worship resources recognises “the way in which their land was taken from them and their language, culture, law and spirituality despised and suppressed”, and laments “the way in which the Christian church was so often not only complicit in this process but actively involved in it”.
The Prayers of the People begins with the petition, “give us the courage to accept the realities of our history so that we may build a better future for our nation”—for that is the purpose of the Day of Mourning, of the annual Reconciliation Week, and of the ongoing commitment of the Uniting Church to “live out the covenant into which we, the First and Second Peoples of this land, have entered with one another.”
The closing Word of Mission in the 2023 worship resources continues: “Confront and challenge injustice wherever you see it. Act justly yourselves and insist that others do the same. Rejoice in the richness of our diverse cultures and learn from them. Celebrate and demonstrate the unity we share in Jesus our Lord. Commit to worship, witness and serve as one people under God, Until God’s promised reconciliation of all creation is complete.”
The resource ends with links to appropriate contemporary songs and children’s stories, and suggestions for craft activities within worship on 22 January.
A carol-commentary for the Festival of Epiphany (a little weird, a little forced, perhaps a little sin-ical ?)
WE: the first person plural subject of the song, suggesting this comes straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak
THREE: or perhaps four, or maybe seven, or even twelve, or some other indeterminate number, since the initial story does not specify the precise number of subjects in the story
KINGS: or some say wise men, or others say sages, which they offer as an interpretation of the term magus, used in the initial narrative … so perhaps the subjects of the song are Zoroastrians, for whom star-watching was a highly-developed skill.
OF ORIENT: or, lands east of Israel, so perhaps Babylon, or even further to the east, in Parthia, where the Zoroastrian faith was dominant
ARE: the main verb, denoting the existential state of being of the subjects
BEARING: adverbial participle, descriptive of the activity of the aforesaid subjects of the song
GIFTS: by tradition, three of them [see below], which goes to explain why you might think there are three of the subjects [see above] … and providing grist for the mill for the idea that these subjects were kings, since Psalm 72:10-11 speaks about kings bringing gifts to the King of Israel
WE TRAVERSE AFAR: presumably on camels, the deluxe form of transportation of the time … although ………
FIELD AND FOUNTAIN, MOOR AND MOUNTAIN: a little bit of poetic excursus, a selective account of the natural phenomena encountered on the journey, arranged in alliterative couplets (it feeds the creative imagination of the listener/singer, you see)
FOLLOWING: another adverbial participle, providing a second description of the activity of the subjects
YONDER STAR: a bright celestial phenomenon, shining in the eastern sky but apparently moving or pointing in the direction of Israel, which was dutifully followed by the subjects
O Star of wonder, star of night / Star with royal beauty bright / Westward leading, still proceeding / Guide us to thy Perfect Light: more poetic extrapolation, as befits the season
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain / GOLD I bring to crown Him again / King forever, ceasing never / Over us all to reign: which explains the claim that the subjects of the song are kings, as the gift of gold was what the kings of the nations bring to the Lord God when they travel to Jerusalem, according to Isaiah 60 verses 3 and 6–bearing in mind the injunction of Exodus 20:23, that this gift of gold not be in the form of any idol
O Star of wonder, etc …
FRANKINCENSE to offer have I / Incense owns a Deity nigh / Prayer and praising, all men [oops!] raising / Worship Him, God most high: in relation to the gift of frankincense, as already noted above, the kings of the nations bring this to the Lord God when they travel to Jerusalem, according to Isaiah 60 verses 3 and 6 … and, ahhh, presumably there has been a divine change of mind since Isaiah 1:13, where the Lord God declared that “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” ?
MYRRH is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes of life of gathering gloom / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying /Sealed in the stone-cold tomb: curiously, there is no scriptural tradition about kings bringing myrrh to the Lord
Nevertheless, myrrh certainly featured as a gift in the religious practices of Israel, according to Exodus 30:23–27 (The LORD spoke to Moses: “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil’ — an oil to anoint “the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant, and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand”)
As the song signifies, it points forward to a moment in the passion of Jesus as narrated at Mark 15:23, where it is mixed with wine [but in that case, the gift was not accepted] and to the burial scene as reported at John 19:39, where it is mixed with aloes.
And let’s not make any link to the scene in Revelation 18:11-13, where the merchants of the world lament the fact that nobody is purchasing their goods any longer … goods which include, amongst many options, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh …
O Star of wonder, etc …
Glorious now behold Him arise / King and God and Sacrifice / Alleluia, Alleluia / Earth to heav’n replies: adhering to the Golden Evangelical Rule of always taking the opportunity to smuggle Easter and the Cross and the Sacrifice of Jesus into any song or sermon or worship service or, even, Christmas/Epiphany Carol!
And so we come to the twelfth day of Christmas, 5 January—the day that ends with Twelfth Night, the Eve before Epiphany. And what a gift-giving bonanza it has been! Birds of various kinds, jewellery, milkmaids, dancing ladies, leaping lords, and a bunch of pipers, have been marshalled and then gifted by “my true live” to a deserving recipient. And celebrated in song! It has been quite an extravaganza.
We sing about this every year in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. That popular song itemises the giving of gifts over those twelve days, mounting cumulatively day by day. The total number of gifts given is quite amazing—it actually totals 364! Each day’s gift is given, not only on that day, but on each of the subsequent days.
To calculate the total number of gifts, we need to multiply each gift by the number of times it recurs in a full round of the song. If we do this, we will soon realise that the gifts’ recipient would have to rent a storage unit and gain access to a lake, to contain the bounty, including 12 partridges (one each day for 12 days), 22 turtledoves (2each day for 11 days), 30 French hens (3 each day for 10 days), 36 colly birds, 40 gold rings, 42 laying geese, 42 swimming swans, 40 milking maids, 36 dancing ladies, 30 leaping lords, 22 pipers piping, and 12 drummers drumming.
And just think, how much all of this would cost! In fact, the cost each year has been calculated by the Christmas Price Index, published by the US bank PNC Wealth Management (only in America would a bank be called a “wealth management” company 😳). See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_Price_Index
The Christmas Price Index chose the items in this popular Christmas carol as its market basket, calculating their cost by using local sources of information—purchasing the pear tree from a local Philadelphia nursery, assessing the costs of the partridge, turtle dove, and French hen prices as determined by the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
The price for the gold rings was guided initially by Gordon Jewelers (subsequently taken over by the Zale Corporation), and an assumption was made that the maids were unskilled laborers earning the federal minimum wage. The ten “lords a-leaping” are valued by using the cost of hiring male ballet dancers instead of real lords, since “lordships are a title of nobility not recognised in the United States”!
In 2012, the “true love” would have to spend $107,300 to buy all 364 presents. PNC Wealth Management has calculated the cost of the gifts every year since 1984–in that year, the same gift assortment would have cost $61,300. Those determinedly mobile swans were the most expensive item, at $1,000 each in 2012.
By 2019, the total cost would have been $38,993.59, but the next year, the cost dipped, because of the pandemic and associated restrictions. In 2020, the index did not include nine Ladies Dancing, ten Lords-A-Leaping, eleven Pipers Piping, or twelve Drummers Drumming due to COVID-19 restrictions on live performances. The total cost was $16,168.14. But in 2021, with performances in the USA once again possible, it rose to $41,205.50, and then to $45,523.27 in 2022.
So: as well as being a noisy enterprise (all those birds squawking, pipers piping, and drummers drumming) requiring large storage facilities, it’s an expensive business for the “true love” to keep this up, each and every year!
Following on from Noel Debien’s Obituary/Evaluation of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that I posted yesterday, I have collated some further comments that I’ve found in the media relating to the legacy of Benedict.
Former priest and media commentator Paul Collins assesses the papacy of Benedict as follows: “Benedict’s most important act was his resignation because in one fell-swoop he relativised the papacy and drained it of its ‘mystery’. It showed him as a normal man who admitted that he had ‘come to the certainty that my strengths, due to advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.’ That required humility; the last pope to have resigned was Celestine V in 1294.”
Theologian Ben Myers explores the theology of Ratzinger-the-academic who became Benedict-the-pope:
“For over half a century Ratzinger has challenged the subordination of truth to communal belonging. From his academic career in the 1950s and 60s to his papal ministry as Benedict XVI, one of Ratzinger’s most consistent themes has been the priority of reason and truth over communal identity. In his analysis, the most urgent theological task is the recovery of reason. It is, he thinks, the most urgent social and political task too.
“Ratzinger sees the split between faith and reason as inimical to both religion and secular society. Religion becomes pathological when its claims are reduced to private exhortations to insiders with no link to a universally accessible rationality or a shared conception of the human good. And reason, for its part, becomes pathological when it is confined to the sphere of fact, measurement, and technical manipulation with no accountability to moral considerations of justice, goodness, and the ends of human life.
“Ratzinger calls for faith to be animated by rationality and for reason to be open to its transcendent foundations as revealed to faith. Faith and reason alike, he argues, arise from the manifestation of the divine Logos, who is ultimately revealed as Love: a rationality that is living, personal, and directed toward us for our good.”
Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Jamie Manson (president of Catholics for Choice) notes that “over the course of nearly 50 years, Benedict produced more than 65 books in theology, Christology and liturgy, as well as three papal encyclicals and three papal exhortations.”
However, she continues, “whatever contributions he made in his prolific and distinguished career may ultimately be overshadowed by the years he spent monitoring, and sometimes suppressing and silencing, the work of other Catholic theologians and ethicists. Though Benedict resigned from his papal,office in 2013, many theologians in the U.S. still struggle to separate the pope from his tenure as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog.”
The uncovering of the extensive sexual abuse committed by religious in the Roman Catholic Church (and many other churches, community organisations, and institutions around the world) has been a major factor in the leadership of the church for a number of years now. A year ago, in January 2022, a report on sexual abuse in Germany’s Munich diocese on Thursday faulted retired Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of four cases when he was archbishop in the 1970s and 1980s.
The law firm that drew up the report said Benedict strongly denies any wrongdoing. Writing for APNews, Geir Moulson wrote that “The findings were sure to reignite criticism of Benedict’s record more than a decade after the first, and until Thursday only, known case involving him was made public. … Benedict’s legacy as pope had already been colored by the global eruption in 2010 of the sex abuse scandal, although as a cardinal he was responsible for turning around the Vatican’s approach to the issue.”
Moulson continued, “Benedict gained firsthand knowledge of the global scope of the problem when he took over at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1982, after his time in Munich. Ratzinger took the then-revolutionary decision in 2001 to assume responsibility for processing those cases after he realized bishops around the world weren’t punishing abusers but were just moving them from parish to parish where they could rape again.”
Writing immediately after the news of his death was announced, Journalist Nicole Winfield has advocated for a favourable assessment of Benedict’s actions, noting that “it was the then-Cardinal Ratzinger who took the revolutionary decision in 2001 to assume responsibility for processing those cases after he realized bishops around the world weren’t punishing abusers but were just moving them from parish to parish where they could rape again.
“And from 2004 to 2014, the Vatican defrocked 848 priests and sanctioned another 2,572 to lesser penalties, a get-tough approach to remove predators outright that went unmatched by Francis. Benedict met with victims across the globe, wept with them and prayed with them. Under his leadership, the Vatican updated its legal code to extend the statute of limitations for cases and told bishops’ conferences around the world to come up with guidelines to prevent abuse.
“And most significantly, Benedict reversed his beloved predecessor by taking action against the 20th century’s most notorious pedophile priest, the Rev. Marcial Maciel. Benedict took over Maciel’s Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order held up as a model of orthodoxy by John Paul, after it was revealed that Maciel sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.”
However, an article in The Conversation (first published in October 2021, updated after Benedict’s death in January 2022) collates many articles examining the crisis over the years – both its roots and the potential routes for reform. The perspective of the five authors is that this is work-in-progress for the Roman Catholic Church—whilst Benedict and Francis have taken various steps towards addressing the situation, it is still not clear that the Roman Catholic Church as a whole has fully reformed its practices as a global institution most highly implicated in this matter.
This matter will continue to figure prominently in all assessments of Benedict as Pope—and, indeed, Ratzinger in his Vatican role prior to this. And whoever follows Francis will need to take further, decisive steps—a call that will be hard to meet in the complex institutional framework of the church. Yet this will be the litmus test for how faithful the church as a whole, and its key leadership, holds to the scriptural injunctions to seek righteousness, practice justice, care for the vulnerable, and uphold the two great commandments, to love others as well as to love God.
The following Obituary for the recently-deceased Pope Benedict XVI was written by Noel Debien, a theologically-astute, practically-involved, faithful practising Roman Catholic Christian, who works as a Religion and Ethics Specialist for the ABC.
As a Protestant, I don’t share the same understanding of Roman Catholicism or hold to the same perspective on the Pope that Noel demonstrates in what he has written. It seems to me that the late Pope Emeritus was a complex character, in a difficult leadership role, in a larger, diverse, unwieldy institution that (like all churches, and all organisations) was facing multiple challenges, to which it responded in various ways, both helpful and unhelpful, both constructive and reactive.
But what Noel writes is worth our reading and our consideration. I do appreciate the clear insights and thoughtful analysis that he offers in this piece, and am sharing this with his permission. I think that this piece would merit its own nihil obstat as a good explanatory piece to those of us outside Roman Catholicism 😁
OBITUARY: Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger Born: 16/4/27 Marktl am Inn, Diocese of Passau, Germany Benedict XVI (19/04/2005–28/02/2013)
He was the first pope to step down in 600 years.
He had chosen his papal name to honour both Pope Benedict XV who led the church through World War I, and St Benedict of Nursia, European monastic leader. He said the name Benedict reminds us “to hold firm Christ’s central position in our lives”. He was deeply critical of the European union when, in its 2008 50th anniversary it failed to include Europe’s Christian heritage in its declaration.
The same pope Benedict XVI canonised our first Australian saint, Mary MacKillop in 2010. During his 2008 World Youth Day visit to Australia he reached millions, establishing him firmly in Australian awareness. He also consecrated the new permanent altar of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. It was also during this visit that he made more world news with his first public apology to victims of child sex abuse by Catholic priests and religious. Over 4,444 survivors in Australia from Catholic religious leaders alone. Many more from other religious institutions.
He said his 8-year long pontificate was all about ensuring continuity and avoiding disruption. This was indeed a “continuity” with his predecessor John-Paul II. He was a traditionalist, yet his resignation and retirement marked him as a genuinely modern pope. A man who was generally averse to “novelty” ended up establishing that the retirement of modern popes is normal. He chose to serve as pope only while his health allowed.
As a smoker, he’d had an embolism in the eye in 1984, recovered from a stroke in 1991 – and was eventually completely blind in his left eye. While he was accused of “secularising” the papacy by stepping down “as if someone in public office”, he firmly rejected this allegation. He remarked that “Even a father’s role stops… he does not stop being a father, but he is relieved of concrete responsibility”. After he retired, he decided to be known as “Pope Emeritus”.
On clerical sexual abuse, he was relatively decisive. His interpretation of the abuse crisis was also “outside the usual model” of church response, as something that came from the outside secular culture. In a “culture war” perspective, he included the views of the broader world, not just internal church views.
More bishops were required to resign under Benedict than any previous pope. One of his first actions was to accelerate the investigation into Fr Maciel Degolado. Degolado, founder and head of the Legionaries of Christ was a drug-addicted sexual predator. Pope John Paul II had refused to believe horrendous allegations about Degolado, and even as this previous pope lay dying, the future Benedict XVI was already moving on Degolado. Still, critics point out that despite Benedict’s determination, Degolado was never arrested and charged.
As a 35 year-old professor of theology, Joseph Ratzinger participated in the 2nd Vatican Council. He was actively there, and lived right through it. He helped German Cardinal Josef Frings prepare for it. He accompanied Frings to the council as a “peritus” (expert). Along with famous names like Yves Congar, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Jean Daniélou and Henri de Lubac, Ratzinger was deeply engaged in that momentous church reform. But his criticism of Vatican II started already when he took distance (like Rahner and de Lubac) from the theology of GAUDIUM ET SPES. He became Archbishop of Munich-Freising in 1977 at age 50, and a Cardinal in the same year.
Born in 1927, Benedict was the longest-lived person ever to have been pope. As pope, he was an absolute monarch, yet he had also known starvation during World war II. His family were anti-Nazi. His own 14 year old cousin (with Downs syndrome) had been murdered by the Nazis in 1941 in their “eugenics” program. He spent time as a reluctant German soldier (he deserted!), and then as a prisoner of war in a US camp at Ulm. He resumed his studies for priesthood as soon as World War II ended. This was in the midst of a devastated Germany.
Over his long life, he observed the repression of Christianity in China, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile crisis, man on the moon, the collapse of Soviet Communism and the American sub-prime mortgage crisis . He also presided over the increasingly shocking clerical sexual abuse crisis that brought large parts of his church to its knees.
He did try to deal with interfaith relations, and had some success, but the relative disaster of the speech he made in Regensburg on Islam (September 2006) was not particularly helpful for his overall record. His words sparked international controversy (to be fair, he accurately quoted the besieged Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos) “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”.
German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been elected pope on April 19th, 2005 at the age of 78. He said this was to his great surprise. “The falling of the guillotine” he called it. But it was his later decision to step down from the papacy at age 85 that helped define the type of active leadership he offered. He had seen his predecessor’s shocking mental and physical decline right to the end, and determined he himself would never die slowly and dramatically in office while leaving others to govern. As the conservative he was, he emphasised precedent from previous resignations of popes.
His theological contribution was immense – especially throughout Vatican Council II. He was a genuine intellectual. At age 39, he became the chair for dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen in 1966. He wrote and spoke German, French and Latin fluently- so much so that he preferred Latin to Italian- a language he was less comfortable in academically. While describing himself as “shy” and “less emotional”, he was deeply influenced by the intellectual rigour, spiritual teaching and emotional struggle of Augustine of Hippo, the 4th Century North African Bishop and Doctor of the Church. He was a genuine “Augustinian”, who told of his wish to move past classical Thomism, the foundational Catholic theological contribution of St Thomas Aquinas. Thomism had been criticised as “frozen” and “manual-bound”.
Among many other things, St Augustine of Hippo defined “original sin” as Christian doctrine. Baptism was required to cleanse this world-sin though God’s gift of grace. Pope Benedict was deeply conscious of this original sin-of-the-world, and deeply cautious that human passions ought to be ordered and managed. His answer was doctrinal purity and adherence to Christian teaching. His experience of Nazi Germany and its post-war destruction left him in no doubt of the consequences of the “ways of the world”. By strategic appointments, he re-structured the worldwide membership of Catholic bishops to reflect his own views, and this can be seen (for example) among the conservative majority among the current members of the American Episcopal conference.
The “Vati-leaks” scandal that began in 2012 did nothing to allay Pope Benedict’s mistrust of “the world”. His own personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, later admitted (and was convicted) of stealing documents from within the papal household and leaking them. Those documents revealed Vatican intrigue, corruption and in-fighting. Pope Benedict was deeply distressed by this betrayal from one so trusted. He remarked the events “brought sadness in my heart”. It is impossible to know how seriously this personal betrayal affected him, but it is true that he resigned just a year later.
He drove forward many corrections of undesired Vatican Council II outcomes, including (with the help of Cardinal George Pell) a retranslation of the Roman Missal (the church’s key prayer book). Particularly in the English translation, its language was made much more literal to the Latin original – and correspondingly less English in idiom. German Catholics had rejected similar reforms, but they were nevertheless carried out for other language groups including English.
The English retranslations were controversial, and reflected his conservative approach. In January 2009, he had lifted the previous excommunication for renegade “Latin Mass” (“Tridentine”) bishops, one of them a Holocaust denier. It was not a particularly helpful moment for the wider church.
He also re-introduced the old Latin Tridentine rite of mass, the one he celebrated as a young priest. It had been banned by Pope Paul VI in an attempt to modernise worship. He liberalized the use of the Latin Mass in the pre-Vatican II rite alongside the existing one in the vernacular, and in this way he boosted the neo-traditionalist movement against Vatican II especially in the English-speaking world.
Benedict characterised his papacy by stressing “continuity”. He determined that the church in his time should be continuous with the church before the Second Vatican Council, and not ruptured from it. The Liturgy was one of his great loves, and in particular the Mass. Among others, his election as pope delighted traditional Catholic liturgists and musicians around the world. Progressives, and many Catholic bishops not ideologically labelled, were less enthusiastic. He once remarked that the reason he knew Pope John Paul II so well was not through his books, but by observing him celebrate the Eucharist. John Paul II was widely regarded as a mystic, and Josef Ratzinger was attuned to this.
Usually a bit tedious to read, Papal Encyclicals changed. These Papal letters to the world became masterful under Benedict. “CARITAS IN VERITATE” (on global development and progress towards the common good) was a particular success. His were accessible, clear and moving. Many expressed surprise that such an intellectual could hone language so simply and speak so clearly. Million and millions actually read his encyclicals – in itself a papal triumph of public relations. For a renowned University lecturer and writer of academic tomes, he also knew how to write for the people.
He played keyboard and sang, and he deeply enjoyed music. Although he was modest about his own voice (“pitch” he commented once). He had a deep knowledge and abiding interest in sacred music. Under his pontificate his own Sistine Chapel Choir was improved greatly. He was proud that his priest-brother Georg directed the world-famous “Cathedral Sparrows” choir in Regensburg (Germany)– and went to worship with them whenever he was able. Church musicians around the world took delight in his informed encouragement. However, the shadow of abuse later fell over even his beloved Regensburg Choir school.
As a Cardinal, he had been nicknamed the “Enforcer”. This was during his time heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (once known as the “Inquisition”). He was a man of rules. The career of many a Catholic theologian ended under his supervision. He was key to the deeply controversial teaching document “Dominus Jesus” in the year 2000. Critics described it as a ‘Public Relations Disaster’ for Ecumenism because it made clear that his Vatican did not consider Protestant churches to be authentic churches, yet supporters of “DOMINUS JESUS” praised it for its Catholic “clarity”. Overall, his was not a particularly ecumenical career, especially in terms of Protestant churches.
In 2009, he alarmed many Anglicans when he created an “Anglican Ordinariate”, designed to receive disaffected Anglicans into the Catholic church while keeping many of their own traditions. It had limited success, receiving many clergy who objected to the ordination of women. Nevertheless, his state visit to the United Kingdom one year later, the first such UK state visit of a Roman Pontiff, was hugely successful. During that visit he beatified the former Anglican Divine (and convert), Blessed John Henry Newman.
As a Cardinal he was also central in the drafting of the Catholic Catechism of 1992 – the worldwide standard source for Catholic teaching. Concerning his enforcer role, he saw it as “service”, and was satisfied someone had to admonish and to warn the church. He was not afraid of unpopularity, and there was a contrarian spirit in him typical of an academic more than a pastor. But his enforcement was not always decisive in outcome, such as with United States nuns in 2012. Pope Francis ended the investigation into the USA Leadership Conference of Women Religious relatively discreetly in 2015.
As a Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger was known as the “enforcer”. As Pope and bridge-builder, Benedict XVI was required to be the “unifier”. His was a pontificate of intended continuity, but yet may prove to have been strained by competing factions, both within the church, and by the more general culture wars of the West.
Today (1 January) is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great in the Eastern churches. Basil wrote many theological works and is remembered (along with the two Gregorys, of Nyssa and Nazianzus—pictured below) as one of the Cappadocian Fathers, who played an influential role in the development of patristic thinking about the triune God.
It is said that Basil was tall, thin, partly bald, with a long beard. (He is the one on the left in the icon above.) He ate no more than was absolutely necessary for his survival; he never ate meat. It is said that he had only one worn undergarment and one overgarment.
Basil said that prayer was the seasoning for our daily work, as we season food with salt; that sacred and holy songs can only inspire us and give us joy and not grief. His philosophy fits well into the Christmas Season, when we season our lives with carols!
At the age of 28, Basil “left the world” and became a monk; at 35 a priest, then at 41, the Bishop of Caesarea. It is said that Basil, being born into a wealthy family, gave away all his possessions to the poor, the underprivileged, those in need, and children.
For Greeks and others in the Orthodox tradition, St Basil is the saint associated with Santa Claus. In Greek tradition, he brings gifts to children every January 1 (St Basil’s Day). It is traditional on St Basil’s Day to serve vasilopita, a rich bread baked with a coin inside.
It is also customary on his feast day to visit the homes of friends and relatives, to sing carols for the New Year, and to set an extra place at the table for Basil.
The celebration of St Basil on 1 January marks the day of his death. In the Western Church, because 1 January commemorates the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Basil shares his saintly commemoration on the next day, 2 January, with Gregory of Nazianzus.
St Basil’s Hymn is one of many traditional Greek carols (often referred to as calanda) that are still sung by children on St Basil’s feast day (New Year’s Day). In the tradition still practiced to some extent in modern times, Greek children roam the neighborhoods from house-to-house on St Basil’s Day, playing instruments and singing songs, bidding New Year’s tidings to everyone, and receiving gifts of sweets and pastries from householders.
Here is the hymn (in a quirky and rather stilted translation):
It’s the beginning of the month beginning of the year High incense tree Beginning of my good year Church with the Holy Seat It’s the beginning of our Christ Saint and spiritual He got out to walk on earth And to welcome us St. Basil is coming from Caesarea And doesn’t want to deal with us May you long live, my lady He holds an icon and a piece of paper With the picture of Christ our Saviour A piece of paper and a quill Please look at me, the young man
One of the gifts that is treasured by many believers around the world is the ability to read the scriptures on their own language. It is something that we take for granted; but it is not something that has always been available to people of faith.
On this day it is good to pause and remember that we have the Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic writings of scripture translated into English and available for us to read. On this day perhaps we English-speaking people might spare a thought for the 14th century theologian and preacher, John Wycliffe (1328–1384), who is remembered as the person who made the first English translation of the Bible.
From his theological writings, it has been deduced that Wycliffe believed that “scripture was the only authoritative reliable guide to the truth about God”. That was a view that was later expressed by the key figures in the various Reformations that took place in the 16th century. Wycliffe therefore maintained that all Christians should rely on the Bible rather than on the teachings of popes and clerics—a position that drove Martin Luther two centuries later, in his criticisms of the church.
It follows from this, that all Christians should have direct access to those scriptures to nurture their own faith. “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English”, he wrote; “Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.” The many translations of the Bible into English that were made in the ensuing centuries stand on the foundation of Wycliffe’s work.
Certainly, the long list of people who translated the scriptures into their own vernacular attest to the importance of contextualising scripture and making it widely available to the people of God—a commitment that has enriched the lives of believers over the centuries. My own denomination continues that commitment with an affirmation that “the Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures [and] commits its ministers to preach from these” (Basis of Union, para.5).
As a pre-Reformation protestor, Wycliffe said that there was no scriptural justification for the papacy (as did Luther). He also taught predestination (as did Calvin and Zwingli) and the consubstantiation of the elements in communion (as is sometimes attributed to Luther), in distinction from the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. His theology also prefigured the Reformers in his affirmation that “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation” (cf. Luther’s sola fide).
All of this, of course, set Wycliffe up for conflict with the authorities in the Roman Catholic Church. The “Constitutions of Oxford” of 1408 were issued after a synod called by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas of Arundel. This decree aimed to reclaim authority in all ecclesiastical matters, and specifically named John Wycliffe as it banned certain writings, and noted that translation of Scripture into English by unlicensed laity was a crime punishable by charges of heresy.
In May 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls against John Wycliffe for heresy. In all, the Catholic Church in England tried him three times, and two Popes summoned him to Rome, but Wycliffe was never imprisoned nor ever went to Rome.
Three decades after his death, the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic on 4 May 1415, and banned his writings, effectively both excommunicating him retroactively and making him an early forerunner of Protestantism. Many Protestants consider Wycliffe to be something of a hero, for he stood against the Roman Church by insisting that the scriptures should not be locked up in Medieval Latin, but rather should be available in the vernacular—in his case, Middle English.
So, John Wycliffe: Bible translator and theologian, preacher and pre-Reformation protestor, a Roman Catholic declared a heretic whose name is remembered and highly valued by Protestants … how do you assess him: heretic? or hero?
So today we come to the five gold rings in the twelve days of Christmas — you know, the place in the song where everyone turns into bathroom baritones (or the female equivalent), holding forth with the long notes in the “five go-old riiiiiiiiiiiiings” line!
And here we meet head-on the pietistic rhetoric about the song having hidden meanings—the five gold rings stand for the five Books of Moses, just as the two turtledoves signify the two testaments of the Bible, the three colly-birds point to the three persons of the Trinity, the ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments, and the twelve drummers drumming symbolise the twelve points of The Apostles’ Creed. Pietistic tosh, clearly debunked by snopes.com!
See further at
But beware: another danger lurks here! Recently, no less a venerable and reliable source than the UK Mirror (!!) has quoted a Canadian astrophysicist, Dr Anna Hughes, who tweeted that “’five gooolden riings’ is not in fact referring to 5 literal golden rings, but to five ring-necked pheasants, aka more birds”. Perhaps she felt that commenting on popular christmassy songs would bring her more fame and renown than her PhD is astrophysics and her research in quantum computing? (Thanks to my friend James Ellis for bringing this *learned* article to my attention 😁)
Sadly for the Mirror, and Dr Hughes, this theory is not new. In a 1951 article, Ben Shahn had suggested that “the five golden rings refer to the ringed pheasant”. A decade later (1962) William and Ceil Baring-Gould published a book in which they reiterate this idea, which implies that the gifts for first seven days are all birds. The Mirror, and Dr Hughes, are rather late to the party!!
According to Dr Wikipedia, “Others suggest the gold rings refer to “five goldspinks”—a goldspink being an old name for a goldfinch; or even canaries. In his blog entitled “The Illustrated Etymologicon”, journalist and author Mark Forsyth suggests “the rings could be ring-bills, ring-birds, ring-blackbirds, ring-buntings, ring-dotterels, ring-pigeons, ring-plovers, ring-sparrows or ring-thrushes. There’s a veritable aviary of birds that could be called rings and that, given the feathered context, is what the song is about.” So why pheasants?
However, the original 1780 publication of the song included an illustration that clearly depicts the “five gold rings” as being jewellery.
Further light is shed on the gold rings by Dr Pamela Patton, an art historian who has specialised in medieval Spanish art and currently teaches at Princeton University. Dr Patton writes, “the familiar version of the carol that emerged in 1909, when Frederic Austin published his arrangement. And the “five gold rings” part that’s so fun to belt out? It was Austin who composed those two famous bars and added them to his arrangement of the traditional melody, which was copyrighted by the publisher!”
On a roll, she continues, “It was also Austin who added the word “On” to the beginning of each verse. Interestingly, for the twelfth day, Austin doubled down on the melisma, so the final verse calls for the word “gold” to be sung with a flourish of four notes rather than the two usually sung today.”
The publication she refers to is Frederic Austin, arr., The Twelve Days of Christmas (Traditional Song) (London: Novello, 1909). She records all of this on her blog site, “The Index of Medieval Art”. (The arrangement by Austin is not medieval, and the song itself falls just beyond her area of expertise, having first been published in the 18th century, but her blog post contains a fine exposition about a number of gold rings from antiquity in various museum collections.)
So the combination of the artwork and the musical arrangement would point to the five go-old rings being just that—not a gift of yet more birds, but rather an expensive jewellery gift from the true love in the song!
So, it is the night of Christmas Day, and it feels like it is all over—done and dusted, finished, put to bed. Hold it—not so fast!! This is only just the start. Christmas Day is just the first of twelve days of the Christmas season. You might have heard about those twelve days in the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. This is an English Christmas Carol which is often sung in the lead up to Christmas. It actually belongs to the Christmasseason—that is, the days on and after Christmas Day.
Now, some have claimed that this song had a pietistic purpose: a kind of sung catechism about the central features of the Christian Faith, put into code by Roman Catholics in England when their faith was outlawed. (One is Jesus, two symbolises the two testaments, three indicates faith, hope and love, four refers to the Gospels, five to the Books of Moses, ten to the Ten Commandments, twelve to the apostles, and so on …)
Nice theory, but there is no evidence at all that this was the case … and the origins of the theory go back no further than a speculation by a Canadian hymn writer in an article published in 1979. (And snopes.com agrees; you can read the detailed rebuttal at http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/music/12days.asp)
The Twelve Days of the #twelvedaysofchristmas technically refer to the days from Christmas Day, the first day of Christmas, through to Twelfth Night. So the song should be sung from Christmas Day onwards. And the gifts that are given each day accumulate until the twelfth night, the evening before Epiphany, when gifts were given to Jesus by the Magi visiting from the east.
Professor Bruce Forbes writes that “In 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, or what the English, called Christmastide. On the last of the twelve days, called Twelfth Night, various cultures developed a wide range of additional special festivities. The variation extends even to the issue of how to count the days.” (Christmas: A Candid History, 2008; see p. 27).
Forbes also notes that there are divergent chronologies at work in different parts of the church: “If Christmas Day is the first of the twelve days, then Twelfth Night would be on January 5, the eve of Epiphany. If December 26, the day after Christmas, is the first day, then Twelfth Night falls on January 6, the evening of Epiphany itself.”
There’s a suggestion that The Twelve Days of Christmas song was originally sung in French . . . or, at least, that the line for the First Day originally included both French and English terms for the bird; thus, “partridge” (in English, and then in French, “perdrix” (pronounced per-dree) . . . which makes no sense, really; but this is a Christmas Carol, and such songs don’t really have to make sense, do they?
On the Second Day, two turtledoves are to be given. But for what purpose? Since this song relates to Christmas, can we assume that there is some religious or spiritual significance with this gift??
Turtle doves could be offered as a sin-offering (Lev 5:7). Is this why they were given? Or perhaps, as the alternate offering for a poor woman, seeking purification after giving birth (Lev 12:8)? This at least links in to the Christmas story (at Luke 2:24), which is what the song is supposed to be about! But it does seem like a long shot …
So, what about as a guilt-offering when cleansing a leper (Lev 14:22)? Or maybe for a Nazirite who has touched a corpse (Num 6:9)? Or as a means of cleansing after sexual discharge (Lev 15:14)? Or maybe the text is multivalent, and we are supposed to bring all of these allusions to mind. Because we know our Bible so well. And we know this is meant to be symbolic. Eh?
Next, on Day Three, the gift to be given is three French hens. Some suggest they are Faith, Hope and Charity, the key Theological Virtues. But only three? There are actually four types of French Hens (Faverolles, La Fleche, Crevecoeurs and Marans). So do we know which one of the four missed out on its moment of glory in this Christmas carol? It’s a worry.
On Day Four, four birds form the gift. Ah, but what type of birds? Calling birds? So you might think. But older versions of the song identify them as Colly Birds. Which are … …??? A colly bird is a black bird. A coal mine is called a colliery, so ‘colly’ or ‘collie’ is a derivation of this and means black like coal. So, no more whitewashing, let’s sing “four black birds”, and be clear about it, eh?
And … while we are at it … Day Five: Five Golden Rings? But they are surrounded by flocks of birds (swans, geese, colly birds, hens de la France, turtle doves, and a partridge). Rings are out of place. So, it is believed that this verse originally referred not to jewellery but to ring-necked birds such as the ring-necked pheasant. So, let’s now sing: “five ring-necked birds”! Context is everything!
The sixth of the #twelvedaysofchristmas is the midpoint of the 12 days, when we can look back on the story of Christmas (the birth and the shepherds), and forward to the story of Epiphany (the visit of the Magi). The gift for the Sixth Day focusses on new life: six geese a-laying.
It is said that, while chickens lay eggs regularly (usually each day ), geese only lay 30-50 eggs a year. This means they are a less productive bird to keep. It takes longer to increase the size of the flock for meat production. And their eggs are very high in cholesterol. Was this a wise gift? (Of course, you may well score the goose that lays the golden egg.)
On Day Seven, the gift is seven swans a-swimming. Well, yes; that’s what swans do. But who in their right might give this as a gift? Where would they all be put so that they could keep swimming? In a huge bathtub? This is quite unrealistic. Anyway, I guess it proves that the carol was not written by a football-mad fanatic. (They would have had swans kicking goals.)
On Day Eight, we are exhorted to give eight maids a-milking. In older English, to “go a-milking” could mean to ask a woman for her hand in marriage; OR to ask a woman to go “for a roll in the hay”, as it were. Is this Christmas carol concealing a reference to illicit sexual encounters? And does that make it more interesting than just getting some milk in order to make some cheese?
Next: Day Nine. Nine ladies dancing. Liturgical dances, I presume? In explore the significance of these ladies, I am somewhat stumped. Any clues, anyone?
Meanwhile, I am starting to compile my list of ‘not relevant in Australia’ secular Christmas carols. Because here, downunder, we are in the midst of summer—not winter, as all the upover northern hemisphere Christmas songs assume. So, not relevant to downunder would include: Anything with snow, for a start. And bells. And holly. And fir trees. And … well, the possibilities are endless.
On Day Ten, the gift is to be ten Lords a-leaping. Alliteration, indeed; but why leaping? Perhaps there is a textual transmission problem here. Maybe it should be: Lords a-leasing? (what to do with their huge old castles and manors)? Or Lords a-sleeping? (in the upper chamber of the British parliament)? Or perhaps Lords a-weeping? (at the decline of their much- loved aristocratic powers). Who knows?
Which brings us to the eleventh day of (the season of) Christmas. On Day Eleven we meet eleven pipers piping. So perhaps this comes from a Scottish variant (like day one comes from the French version). Perhaps the Scots packed their song full of food? In this, the gifts would include twelve alka seltsers, eleven Blue Lagoons, ten creme de menthe, nine vodka and limes, eight nips of whisky, seven rum and cokes, six Carlsberg specials…you get the picture? (Yes, I know, this is becoming quite speculative!!)
Or — does the Scottish reference (bagpipes) mean that I should refer to the crackpot theory that this whole carol was a coded reference to the right of Bonny Prince Charlie to regain the British throne? Yegods … …
But I do note that, in other versions, there are eleven ladies spinning, eleven ladies dancing, eleven lads a-louping, eleven bulls a-beating, and eleven badgers baiting!! Make of them, what you will.
And then, we come to the ultimate (last) of the #twelvedaysofchristmas. Day Twelve. Twelve drummers drumming.
Since the gifts are cumulative, and repeated on each day, on Day Twelve we actually have drummers drumming, along with piping pipers, leaping lords, bleating cows, tapping toes, shuffling shoes, a horde of aviary escapees, and the whole schemozzle. 78 gifts in all (count them) just on this last, twelfth, day. Presumably the others gifts from earlier days are still there. That’s one heck of a menagerie!! It’s all too loud, I think — and the incessant fights amongst all those squawking birds! Oh dear; time for a doze, instead.
The evening of Day Twelve is thus Twelfth Night. The day after is Epiphany, a day to celebrate the coming of the magi to the infant Jesus. Time, indeed, to rest—when you get there. But, for the moment, there’s some geese to be sourced. And some drummers. And milkmaids … and Lords (Lords??) … and ………….
Every Christmas, we are surrounded by images of the much-loved nativity scene: the infant Jesus, in a cradle, with his mother Mary sitting and his father Joseph standing nearby, surrounded by animals (cows, most often), with a group of shepherds (perhaps with their sheep) to one side, whilst on the other side three colourfully-dressed men stand with presents in hand: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We see this image everywhere. But it is not an accurate portrayal of what was happening at the time when Jesus was born. For one thing, it is not a photograph of an actual event. Far from it. It is not even based on a written report from the first century, telling that this was what happened.
The traditional scene that we see today did not come into being until it was invented by the medieval friar, Francis of Assisi. Before that, it did not exist. And no Gospel account actually tells of cows mooing beside the newborn child, or of the newborn infant making no crying sounds, or of the sheep baaing alongside the cows, that we see in the traditional nativity scene.
Francis is the most popular Catholic saint in the world. He is the one who preached to the birds; blessed fish that had been caught, releasing them back into the water; and communicated with wolves, brokering an agreement between one famous ferocious wolf and the citizens of a town that were terrified of it. There is no surprise, then, that Francis used real animals when he created the very first, live, Christmas nativity scene. As a result of all these stories, Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment. And he is the inventor of the familiar nativity scene.
Actually, this scene is a compilation of two quite discrete stories, told decades later, offering very different perspectives on the event, providing two somewhat different emphases in the story of the birth of this child. The nativity scene merges and blends the story found in the orderly account constructed by Luke, and the book of origins compiled by Matthew. Wise men and shepherds sit on each side of the family group, at the same time, in the same place, in this traditional scene. But not in our biblical accounts.
In the opening chapters of Matthew, we encounter the pregnant Mary, the newborn infant Jesus, his father Joseph, a bright star in the sky, visitors from the east, the tyrannical rule of Herod, and slaughtered infant boys. In this story, Matthew is working hard to place Jesus alongside the great prophet of Israel, Moses. The early years of Jesus unfold in striking parallel to the early years of Moses. The parallel patterns are striking.
Luke tells a more irenic version of the story than what is found in Matthew’s Gospel. The story told by Luke (usually represented through idyllic pastoral scenes and sweetly-singing angels), actually tells of a widespread movement of the population that meant a pregnant Mary, accompanied by Joseph, had to travel afar and find lodging in a crowded town just as the most inconvenient time.
There are historical problems with this story: identifying the census as an actual historical event, and locating it accurately in time, both present challenges; the fact that Herod, ruling in Matthew’s account, died in 4BCE, but Quirinius, who ordered the census noted in Luke’s account, began as Governor in 6 CE. However, the combined story has entered the popular mindset as a real event and provides a clear and compelling picture of the holy family as refugees, because of decisions made by political authorities, whether Herod or Quirinius.
We overlook, perhaps, that the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child would have been despised for carrying out a lowly and unworthy occupation. They were outcasts, considered impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live. In the Mishnah, a third century work which collects and discusses traditional Jewish laws, shepherds are classified amongst those who practice “the craft of robbers”. These are not highly valued guests!
Even though this is not an historical story, it is important for theological reasons. It is part of the foundational myth of the Christian faith. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel wants to make strong correlations between Jesus and Moses, not only in the mythological account found in the opening chapters, but also throughout the following chapters of the Gospel. The writer of Luke’s Gospel hints at his key themes in the opening chapter, and the develops a strong political and economic message throughout his Gospel: God reached out to the poor and powerless, and harshly judges the wealthy and powerful.
As myth, the tradition points to important truths. Matthew’s account of “the Slaughter of the Innocents”, for instance, although generated by his Moses typology, still grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when tyrants exercised immense power. Even though we recognise Matthew is not reporting an actual historical event, his narrative provides a dreadful realism to a story which, all too often in the developing Christian Tradition, became etherealised, spiritualised, and romanticised.
By the same token, Luke’s recounting of the visit of the outcast shepherds to the infant child and his family indicates that those on the edge were welcomed by Jesus throughout his ministry. He grounds the message of the Gospel in the heart of the needs of the people of his day.
So even as we recognise that the Christmas story is not history, we can appreciate the insights that it offers us as a mythological narrative. It is worth celebrating: not as an actual historical event, in the way it is traditionally portrayed, but as the foundation of the faith that we hold: in Jesus, God has come to be with us.